The priesthood, one month in

As of today I have been a priest for a month. The past month has flown by! It has been a month of many blessings as well as new things to get used to: a new parish, celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and having people call me “Father”.  Providentially, I had the opportunity to hear a great talk today that got me reflecting on what it means to be a priest. Today many of the priests of the Archdiocese of Vancouver had the opportunity to hear Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa speak. Since 1980, Fr. Cantalamessa has been the Preacher to the Papal Household. In this role, he preaches to the Pope and other high-ranking officials each Friday during Lent and Advent. Two words struck me from Fr. Cantalamessa’s talk: love and gift. These words seem to be at the core of what it means to be a priest and minister to people today.

The starting point is God’s personal love for each one of us. Fr. Cantalamessa reminded us of Pope Benedict’s Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. In this, Pope Benedict emphasized that God’s love is both agape and eros.  The latter is important to remember. God’s love is not some distant thing; He is drawn to us. Likewise, Fr. Cantalamessa explained that our love for God must be both agape and eros. We certainly must be willing to make sacrifices for God (agape), but at the same time we must be enchanted by Jesus and drawn to Him (eros). We are called to be friends of Jesus, not just His spokesmen. This was a great reminder for me one month into my priesthood. I need to remember that the primary thing for me is to love and follow after Jesus. Deepening my personal relationship with Jesus must be my primary concern.

Fr. Cantalamessa explained that there is a great difference between Christianity and other religions. He said that every other religion begins by telling its adherence what to do. “If you want to be saved, you must do this” and “if you wish to obtain enlightenment you must do that.” In other words, duties come first. In Christianity, on the other hand, duties – though important – come second. Christianity begins by telling us what God has done for us to save us. Christianity begins with gift rather than duty. In Christianity, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit – the very love of God – who allows us to do joyfully what is commanded. Fr. Cantalamessa quoted St. Augustine on this:
The law was given so grace we would seek. Grace was given that the law we might keep.
While listening to this, I was reminded of the fact that the priesthood is first and foremost an incredible gift! I have a tendency to get caught up with duties, the things that I must do in the day. At its core, however, I do believe that priesthood is the incredible gift of a unique way of following and relating to Jesus.

Preaching Love and Gift
Fr. Cantalamessa argued that in our preaching we need to imitate the example of St. Peter found in Acts 2:14ff. Our situation today is in many ways similar to the times of the apostles. Then, they were preaching to a pre-Christian world. Today we are preaching to a post-Christian world.  If we follow their example, we can succeed in changing the world, just as they did. St. Peter, newly filled with the Holy Spirit, begins by telling people about love and gift and not about duties. He begins by telling the people the good things that God has worked for them through Jesus: Jesus Christ died for our sins. This is the kerygma, or “the cry”. Fr. Cantalamessa explained that this is what Pope Francis is doing. He is starting be telling people about the love and gifts that God has given us in Christ. This is the primary thing, duties and commandments come second. To be able to preach in this way, we must first accept, more and more, Jesus as our own Lord and Messiah. Saying that Jesus is Lord, is a decision. It is saying to Jesus, “I joyfully submit myself to you.” When we preach the kerygma, then, we are able to call others to make the decision to accept Jesus as their Lord.

Fr. Cantalamessa finished with a powerful image. He explained that the painting “The Scream”, by Edvard Munch, has become something of a symbol for our modern culture that is often atheistic and materialistic, looking at our current existence as the only reality. The scream in the painting expresses how we are often lost with nowhere to look. It expresses the anguish of heart that has lost a sense of deeper purpose and hope. In the face of this scream, we are called to proclaim the cry of the kerygma, the good news that speaks of hope, gift and love: God in His love for us has given us the gift of Jesus who has died for our sins. Fr. Cantalamessa explained that we must somehow make the cry of the kerygma the foundation of all our preaching – definitely a challenge for the future!

Finally, in this short month as a priest, I have tasted something of the truth with which Fr. Cantalamessa ended his talk: there is no greater way to spend your life than serving Jesus and having Him as your friend!

Wise men: not just a nice Christmas Story

When I was five years old I got to play one of the wise men in our Church’s nativity play. You can probably guess my costume. I wore a bathrobe and a towel tied around my head. In my hands I held a box covered in gold wrapping paper.  Today, on the feast of the Epiphany, we should take a closer look at the wise men. The wise men are not just some nice story that we tell at Christmas or extra characters in a manger scene. In fact, the story of the wise men that we find in today’s Gospel actually presents a model – or paradigm – for our lives as Christians. Their story is our story. Let’s walk through their journey and see how it relates to our own. We will, of course, start at the beginning. How did these men come from a faraway place to meet Jesus?

The Star
The wise men were attracted to Jesus by the light of a star. It is very unexpected that the wise men – who were pagans and not part of the people of Israel – would be among the first to meet Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews. This shows that being led to Jesus was God’s pure gift. God wants each and every human being to come to know His Son. In His goodness God has led us to Jesus. What is the star that led you to Christ? How did you come to believe in Jesus? How did you end up being a Catholic? Though we might all answer this question differently, I bet that nobody here received a phone call from Jesus telling us to follow Him and go to Church. Isn't it the case that we are led to Jesus by some intermediary? Usually we are drawn to the beauty and goodness of Jesus through some person or event. For the wise men it was the star. God put people in my life who led me to Jesus: my family, teachers and friends at University. He also had me live through different experiences, some happy and some difficult. I can see that even something as simple as a book that I read at the just the right time helped lead me to Jesus. What are the “stars” in your own life? Give thanks for these people and experiences. They are a free gift which God put in our lives to lead us closer to Jesus.

Detour with Herod
On their journey to Jesus, the wise men got side-tracked along the way and found themselves in the company of Herod. The very same thing can happen to us as we try to follow Jesus: we take detours and get off-track. This can happen without us even being aware of it or making a conscious choice. Perhaps we become too busy with school or work and slowly drift away from Jesus by no longer taking the time to be with Him in prayer and at Mass. Or maybe some crisis in our life, such as an illness or death in the family, can cause us to become discouraged or lose faith for a time. We see this even in the lives of some of the saints. Take, for example, St. Ignatius of Loyola who was born in Spain in the year 1491. Though he was raised as a Catholic, as a young man Ignatius took a serious detour from the path of following Jesus. He was a soldier who was very concerned with gaining honor in battle, keeping up with the latest fashions and chasing women. Ignatius was arrogant and addicted to gambling. On one occasion he was arrested for beating up a rival. Ignatius did eventually get back on the path to following Christ. Though perhaps not as dramatic as St. Ignatius, in different ways we too can get sidetracked as we follow Jesus. The important thing is that when we notice our mistake we repent and get back on the right path.
They meet Jesus and give Him gifts
After their detour with Herod, the wise men finally were able meet the baby Jesus.  When they met Christ, the wise men did something very significant: they laid their gifts at His feet. We are called to do the same. In different ways, we have all met Christ and have caught a glimpse of His goodness, beauty and love. After we meet Jesus the only proper response is to lay our gifts at His feet. We give Him the gift of our time, to spend in prayer, and the gift of our love and devotion. We also lay at His feet our talents so that He can use us to serve others.  St. Ignatius met Jesus in a striking way, literally. One day while he was defending a fortress, a cannonball struck his leg, badly breaking it. While he was recovering, St. Ignatius asked that books be brought to him. To his dismay, the only available ones were a book on the Life of Christ and one on the lives of the Saints. While reading these books, St. Ignatius met Christ and was drawn to the beauty of a life spent serving Him. He decided to put his whole being at the service of Jesus. Years later he wrote a prayer, called the Suscipe, which expresses well the sentiments in his heart and those of the wise men as well:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
Like St. Ignatius and the wise men, after we meet Christ we are called to lay our gifts at His feet.
St. Ignatius
They take a different path
After they have met Jesus given Him their gifts, we are told that the wise men went home by a different path. Encountering Jesus should never leave us unchanged. After meeting Christ during his recover, St. Ignatius took a radically different path. He thought to himself, “what if I were to live like these saints I keep reading about?” Ignatius became to devout his life to prayer. In time he became a priest, serving countless people, especially the very poor in Rome. Eventually he started a large religious community called the Society or Jesus, or the Jesuits, of which our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, is a member. From time to time it is helpful to ask ourselves, “in what way has my life changed as I follow Jesus?” In what ways am I trying to live more like Jesus and be of service to others? Like the wise men, meeting Christ should encourage us to take different paths.

When I was five, I dressed up as a wise men for an afternoon. Today let us remember that we are called to imitate the journey of the wise men our entire life. Where are you on this journey? Are you currently following a star to meet Jesus? Are you on a detour? Are you laying your gifts at the feet of Jesus? Are you allowing Him to take you on a new path? This journey is one that we can go through time and time again during our life. Wherever we may find ourselves, let us try to recommit ourselves to following Jesus. Let us pray that we might have the same desire that burned inside the hearts of the wise-men: a desire to always seek Jesus, to lay our gifts at His feet and to follow Him wherever He might lead.

Mary be a Mother to me now

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year? For those who made resolutions, how many of you made a resolution regarding your physical health? Each New Year, many of us resolve to get in shape, go to the gym or lose weight. We are used to making resolutions to improve our physical health. Perhaps this year we should consider making a resolution to improve our spiritual health.  On this the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, I suggest that we resolve to improve the relationship we have with Mary.
Often people have difficulty with the idea that as followers of Jesus we are called to have a special relationship with Mary. Perhaps some of you have had to answer questions like this before, “why do Catholics worship Mary?”, “why pray to Mary when you can go directly to Jesus?”  When it comes to Our Lady, people encounter difficulties in two areas:
  1. Catholic beliefs about Mary, such as the Immaculate Conception and Marian titles such as the one we celebrate today, Mary, Mother of God. Some people have difficulties calling Mary this.
  2. Catholic devotion to Our Lady. There are those who struggle to see why we should have a special relationship with Mary and why we would pray to her.

These are important concerns that are well-worth addressing. Many non-Catholic Christians and even some Catholics are a little uncomfortable with the way Catholics view Mary.

For this reason, it is important to remind ourselves and others that Mary has no other mission than to lead us closer to Jesus. At Christmas we are reminded of this every time we look at the Nativity scene. There we see Mary presenting her Son to the world. Mary gave birth to Jesus some 2000 ago, bringing Him into the world. As Catholics, we do not believe that her mission ended there, however. Still today, she has a critical role in bringing Jesus more and more into our hearts. There is a very simple test for us to know whether our devotion to Mary is good and true. If our devotion to Mary is a true one, then we will find that over time we are led to a deeper relationship with Jesus.  Throughout history there have been many reported apparitions of Mary, such as in Fatima, Lourdes and Mexico City. At each of these approved apparition sites, Mary’s mission has always been to encourage people to better know and follow her Son Jesus. She is never the center of attention. She is not trying to be a replacement for Jesus. As Catholics we do not worship Our Lady.  Mary’s mission has always been to leads us closer to Jesus.

More than this, when Catholics profess certain beliefs about Mary or give her particular titles in order to defend what we believe about Jesus. This is the case for the Marian title that we celebrate today, Mary, Mother of God. This title for Mary is very ancient. Try to imagine that the year is 431 and you are in Ephesus, which is in modern day Turkey. About 250 bishops have gathered to resolve a very important dispute that strikes to the core of belief about who Jesus is. The leader of one camp is Cyril of Alexandria. He is arguing that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man and that these two natures of Jesus are united in one person. In other words, the baby that Mary gave birth to is true God and true Man. Because of this, it is right and proper to call Mary by the title “Theotokos”, which means, “Mother of God”. Nestorius, on the other hand, does not feel that Mary can be given this title.  Maybe she could be called “Mother of Christ” but not Mother of God. Though Nestorius would say that Jesus was true God and true Man, he would emphasize more the disunity between these two natures of Jesus, rather than the unity. In the end, the Bishops sided with Cyril. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared solemnly that Mary was indeed Theotokos, Mother of God. Giving Mary this title is a clear way of saying that Jesus is at all times true God and true Man and that these two natures are united. Therefore, giving Mary the title of Mother of God is actually a way of defending what we believe about Jesus.
"Am I not here, I who am your mother?" (Jolivaresb)
On a personal level, Mary is one of the greatest gifts that Jesus gave to His followers because in Mary He has given us a Mother.  Perhaps some of you have been to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The Basilica was built close to the site where Mary appeared to a poor indigenous man named Juan Diego in the year 1531. Above the main entrance to the Basilica is a very visible phrase, written in large letters for all to see: ¿No estoy aquĆ­ que soy tu Madre?, “Am I not here, I who am your Mother”. These words are part of a famous conversation that Our Lady had one day with Juan Diego. Mary had already appeared to Juan Diego and had made arrangements to meet him again. Before the meeting, however, his uncle, Juan Bernardino, fell ill.  Juan Diego was anxious to care for his uncle, so he made the decision to skip his appointment with Mary avoided the spot where they were to meet. Not surprisingly, Mary found him anyway. When she caught up with him, she asked him why he was so worried. After all, she said “am I not here, I who am your Mother”. These words are put at the front of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to remind each one of us that Mary is our mother. She is always near us. She always cares for us. We should feel confident going to her whenever we need help. When Jesus was giving us Mary to be our mother, He gave us the greatest of gifts.

Making resolutions at New Year’s is, I think, a good thing. It shows that we have hope for a better future and want to take steps to make this a reality. I can think of few resolutions that should give us as much hope as resolving to develop a deeper relationship with Mary this year. We can do this in different ways such as praying the rosary, reading a book about Mary or just remembering to ask Mary for help when we need it by saying something like, “Mary, mother of Jesus, be a mother to me now.” Close to 2000 years ago she gave birth to Jesus, true God and true Man. Today give her permission to allow Jesus to become more alive in your heart.